L.A.'s Tom LaBonge is a big-city councilman with a small-town style.
His office bought its own city truck to pick up abandoned sofas and trash across the 4th District. During a downpour, the Los Angeles Downtown News reported that he personally scooped debris out of downtown gutters. He's a civic cheerleader who talks up his Griffith Park hikes, prides himself on creating bicycle and walking paths, and once pushed to make sure Angelenos calling City Hall heard L.A.-themed songs while on hold — not the sort of stuff that tends to polarize voters.
But as a crowded field of candidates vie to replace the termed-out councilman, his record has become a recurring target. David Ryu, a community health center development director seeking the seat, said he was shocked as he was knocking on doors to find starkly divided sentiment about LaBonge.
"Who doesn't love Tom? Tom is Mr. L.A.!" Ryu said, praising LaBonge for his dedication. "But Tom can't be everywhere. If you're lucky enough for Tom to walk by, your problem is likely to get fixed. But we need it systemwide."
Critics peg LaBonge as a "pothole politician" focused on neighborhood nuisances rather than citywide solutions. During his 14-year tenure, some of those local decisions have rankled neighborhood groups: The Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. pointedly asked candidates if they would have supported a controversial apartment project LaBonge backed. Some Hollywood Hills residents were furious when he cleared vegetation from a vista that draws a flood of tourists eyeing the Hollywood sign.
In Hancock Park, a homeowners group wrote to LaBonge expressing "extreme frustration" with "years of runaround from you and your staff" after trying to get streets fixed with more-costly concrete instead of asphalt to suit historic neighborhood rules. At a candidates forum in Hancock Park, a number of audience members called out "No!" when a moderator said they probably trusted LaBonge. Residents such as Cindy Chvatal have criticized the longtime councilman for his spending choices, including using $100,000 to string holiday lights around the Los Angeles Zoo. "I love zoo lights," she said. "But we can't get a pothole fixed."
LaBonge defended that spending, saying it was "important to celebrate the city." He says the street repairs faced unusual obstacles and he pledges that they will happen. But some residents have soured on him and Carolyn Ramsay, his chief of staff and endorsed candidate.
"He's a handshaker and whatnot, but I think people are ready to move on," said Hancock Park resident Tim Allyn, who liked what he heard from candidate and former mayoral aide Teddy Davis.
Ramsay "can point to things that she actually did," said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. "But the downside is, her opposition will saddle her with problems that LaBonge created. The other candidates can promise the world."
LaBonge pointed to accomplishments such as expanding Griffith Park and adding historic zones. Los Feliz Improvement Assn. President Chris Laib credited the councilman with stopping cars from being sold on a congested street, pushing to keep the Greek Theatre under the same management, and even rescuing his dogs from a Griffith Park fire.
"I truly do not believe that any council district in this city has been as well served as we have been," said Laib, who supports Ramsay.
Still, in the last race that LaBonge ran, other candidates netted more than 45% of the vote. And since District 4 was recently redrawn to include areas such as Sherman Oaks, some of its voters may feel less connection to LaBonge than elsewhere, having never cast a ballot for him.
"I see a lot more frustration on that side of town," said candidate Steve Veres, an aide to state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). He said LaBonge is widely recognized as a good person, but his decisions often seem to be based on "gut reaction," not "a systemic approach."
Criticism of LaBonge falls most squarely on Ramsay, but it has also affected other candidates tagged as City Hall "insiders." At one debate, Los Feliz nonprofit director Tomas O'Grady challenged both Ramsay and Joan Pelico, chief of staff to Councilman Paul Koretz, on why they hadn't already made changes they backed.
"You're a chief of staff," he said to Ramsay and Pelico. "I assume you're influencing your council member to do the right thing." He added, "You really need an outsider here."
Ramsay fired back at O'Grady, who often mentions growing up on a farm, "This is a complex city.... Are we going to hire farmers to run the city?"
Ramsay said that was just a joke, but she has frequently plugged her city experience as an advantage, pointing to an expanded Griffith Park and new soccer fields as achievements. While O'Grady and other "outsiders" capitalize on frustrations with LaBonge, the councilman's hands-on attention to many issues has also won him admirers, some of whom are rooting for Ramsay.
"I adore Tom," Larchmont Boulevard Assn. board member Joane Pickett said. "Carolyn, to me, is the best-qualified candidate to replace him. She knows his office so well."
For others, though, that familiarity is a downside. In the Hollywood Hills, some residents argue LaBonge has done too little to stop people from flooding their neighborhoods to get shots of the Hollywood sign and even actively encouraged them by clearing a vista. Homeowner Crosby Doe erected a sign that targeted Ramsay and candidate Sheila Irani, a former LaBonge deputy. It read: "Break the Cycle: Protect Hollywood. Stop the Insiders!"
"They deliberately developed this without environmental review and created chaos in the neighborhood," Doe said of LaBonge and his staff.
Ramsay and Irani argue that as LaBonge staffers, they took steps to ease the problem. Ramsay told a Beachwood Canyon crowd she worked to get parking restrictions in the area and started a shuttle from the Greek Theatre to another viewing spot. Irani said she helped arrange stings to stop tour vans that exceeded weight requirements from entering the area. But O'Grady has won support in Beachwood Canyon after promising to replant with native shrubs and trees the vista that LaBonge cleared, among other changes.
"He's very much an outsider," area homeowner Christine O'Brien said, praising O'Grady.